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There was a time - not long ago, actually - when community-minded school board members gathered one evening a month or so to discuss whether it was time to replace a fleet of gas-guzzling school buses, whether classroom computers were outdated or whether to build a new band hall at an intermediate school. Maybe things got a little heated when they pondered where to site a new elementary school or whether to accept the superintendent’s recommendation for a new football coach, but those occasions were rare.There were other times, of course, when issues of great importance and bitter divisions surfaced, especially off and on during the roughly 30 years it took Houston’s school district to comply with Brown v. Board of Education’s outlawing of so-called separate-but-equal schools, such as when the Houston ISD board voted in 1970 to ignore thunderous pressure to keep the district segregated. Those votes were anything but easy or quiet.
Throughout that history, though, most school board members approached their duties with integrity, and without adhering to purely partisan movements. If the Texas Republican Party has its way, those times will be long past.
A few weeks ago, the party announced that it would be doing everything possible to transform normally low-key, nonpartisan school board elections into overheated arenas for hard-nosed partisan politics. Announcing the creation of a Local Government Committee composed of the party’s executive committee members and local GOP leaders, the objective will be to “assist county parties in electing conservative candidates in often-overlooked school board and municipal elections.”
In other words, one of the last places in American public life largely free of partisan politicking is about to get a Texas-sized dose of it.
Already, the party is crowing about “major successes in recent non-partisan races,” including the Carroll ISD in Southlake (a Fort Worth suburb), “one of the first places in the country,” the party noted, “where candidates running to oppose critical race theory took a school board majority.” The party also celebrated the success of three GOP-supported challengers who unseated long-time incumbents on the board governing Cyprus-Fairbanks ISD, the state’s third-largest district, after a controversy over — what else? — critical race theory. One of them, Scott Henry, set off a firestorm by implying that Black teachers increase dropout rates.
Never mind that not one public school in Texas teaches the abstruse law-school concept known as critical race theory or that most Texans, including most Republican activists, would find it difficult to even define it. CRT is not the point; power politics is.
In theory, interest in young Texans and the schools we develop to educate them is worthy of commendation, but that’s not what the state GOP has in mind. Public education is not its primary focus. The party has come to see school-board races as an opportunity to groom candidates for higher office, actual education issues be damned.
Here’s Cat Parks, the state party’s vice-chair: “We expect voters to choose lower taxes and common-sense conservatism as opposed to the radical left-wing policies, limitless spending, and cronyism that traditionally accompany electing Democrats to those positions.”
Parks and her GOP colleagues have adopted the strategy of Steve Bannon, the extremist political provocateur and sometime adviser to former President Donald Trump. “The path to save the nation is very simple - it’s going to go through the school boards,” Bannon noted in a podcast last year.
As Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, points out, issues of actual importance to a community get swept aside when school board races become more partisan. “This is squeezing local school boards and their ability to operate from a local-issues perspective and superimposing national politics where it may not fit,” he told the Texas Tribune.
The Democrats Party of Texas has also been supporting municipal and school board candidates who identity with the party in a bid to cultivate future candidates for partisan races. Now, the Republicans have taken that one step further by framing these races in ideological ways that stress national debates, and in doing so interjecting partisan politics into what should be nonpartisan races.
“Candidates emboldened by recent protests are turning their elections into referenda on their adopted hot-button issues — issues that overshadow the real needs of students,” warned Jon Valant, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings Institution, in an online piece in November urging more voters to cast ballots in school board elections.
Valant is urging voters to not skip school board elections to keep organized groups pushing super-partisan agendas from winning without even having to win over moderate voters. What happened last fall in a rural Washington State school district is likely to happen in Texas. As the Washington Post reported, two candidates were vying for a vacant school board seat. One had been a PTA volunteer for years and had secured endorsements from educators and local community leaders. Her opponent was an anti-masking member of the extreme-right Three Percent Movement. She had the organization’s logo tattooed on her neck in red, white and blue bullets and walked around town with a pistol strapped to her hip. She and her husband homeschooled their three children.
The Three-Percenter won by 200 votes. Her extremist cadre of supporters were organized and were counting on the unfortunate fact that most voters pay little attention to down-ballot races like school boards.
In theory, it’s possible to extricate school board races from the hyper-partisan maelstrom. Concerned citizens can resist the push to identify school-board candidates by party on the ballot, as several states have done in response to Republican efforts. Concerned citizens might revisit the idea of holding local elections on the same day as state and national elections, with the idea that such a change would increase and diversify turnout.
Of course, the most basic protection against school-board takeovers by extremists or groups eager to subvert our children’s needs to political ends is the simplest: Citizens — Republicans, Democrats and the unaffiliated — have to vote. That means doing a bit of homework: learning the issues, studying voter guides and showing up at candidate forums. As much as we’re reluctant to admit it, one of the most dangerous men in America may be right: “The path to save the nation is very simple - it’s going to go through the school boards.”
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